Sharing Mayo Clinic

Stories from patients, family, friends and Mayo Clinic staff

June 16, 2017

Flashback: 1939 — Lou Gehrig Comes to Mayo Clinic

By SharingMayoClinic

Bob Tierney and his baseball, autographed by Lou Gehrig.

Diagnosed with ALS in the 1930s, the famous baseball player Lou Gehrig not only got the answers he was seeking at Mayo Clinic, he left an enduring mark on the health care organization that still lingers today.

They called him the "iron horse" and the "pride of the Yankees." But when baseball great Lou Gehrig came to Mayo Clinic in June 1939, his name became associated with an illness called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Today, ALS is often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The new Lou Gehrig exhibit in Heritage Hall at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus.

The diagnosis that Gehrig received at Mayo Clinic, where he marked his 36th birthday, also marked the end of his career. Among many highlights, Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games (a record that stood until 1995), was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in its charter year, and was the first athlete to have his number (4) officially retired.

Now Gehrig's story — along with an iconic artifact — is highlighted in a new exhibit at Heritage Hall on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. Heritage Hall is a museum open to the public located on the street level of the Mayo Building in the Mathews Grand Lobby. It includes photos, graphics, films and artifacts showcasing Mayo Clinic's history, current activities and plans for the future.

Reaching out for an answer

Although he was a famous athlete, Gehrig developed a bond with Mayo Clinic that is similar to the experience of many people who turn to Mayo when they encounter troubling symptoms. In his biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Jonathan Eig wrote:

Away from the big-city reporters and expectant teammates, away from his anxious wife and parents, he unwound completely. But it wasn't just the soft hum of small-town life that Gehrig found so pleasing. After weeks and months of uncertainty, after a period in which self-doubt had corroded his spirit like acid chewing through steel, he was at last getting answers. They were not the answers he wanted. But they were answers.

During his weeklong evaluation under the direction of Paul O'Leary, M.D., and colleagues, Gehrig found ways to reach out. He gave informal baseball lessons and spent time with the teenage boys who played on the local American Legion team. One of them, Bob Tierney, became a special friend.

"He was the nicest guy I've ever run into. He'd stop and talk to every kid, especially baseball-playing age. He was real cordial." — Bob Tierney

Tierney wanted to play second base, but he said, "I was gimpy. I had a bum leg — always have had." Gehrig suggested he try pitching instead, Tierney recalled. "He said, 'Come on. Try it.' And we worked on it, and I started pitching. And I pitched minor leagues, and I amateured for 22 years."

Along with affirmation and advice, Lou Gehrig gave something else of value: He signed Tierney's lucky ball.

"He was the nicest guy I've ever run into," Tierney said. "He'd stop and talk to every kid, especially baseball-playing age. He was real cordial. He would talk to you about anything you'd bring up. He was one of the gang."

Bob Tierney (in box) listened to Lou Gehrig's advice to give up second base for pitching.

Bob Tierney (in box) listened to Lou Gehrig's advice to give up second base for pitching.

The last time they met was shortly before Gehrig left Rochester. They shook hands and Tierney recalled: "He was trying to leave the idea that he was going to go back and play again, but I think in his own heart he knew he wasn't going to play."

Coming home, signing off

On July 4, 1939, shortly after being discharged from Mayo Clinic, Gehrig gave his classic speech at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

It was a poignant moment when Tierney watched Gehrig's speech in a newsreel at the Chateau Theater in Rochester. Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.

Tierney and his buddies played with the autographed ball for a while, but he soon realized its value. Tierney kept the ball for three-quarters of a century. He placed the ball into a collector's case and, later, a bank vault.

"It's an honor to have this baseball in its historic home, especially as Mayo makes discoveries in ALS and other illnesses, which bring hope to people around the world." —Andy Chafoulias

Then in his 90s, Tierney made the decision to sell the ball. Rochester business executive Andy Chafoulias learned of the upcoming sale. He knew Tierney's son from their high school days in Rochester. Shortly before Bob Tierney's death, Chafoulias bought the ball. He and his daughter donated it to Mayo Clinic, where it is now displayed in an exhibit in Heritage Hall.

"It's an honor to have this baseball in its historic home, especially as Mayo makes discoveries in ALS and other illnesses, which bring hope to people around the world," Chafoulias says.

The triple play of generosity is now complete: Gehrig, despite his illness, giving encouragement to a young fan; Bob Tierney, steward of the artifact for 75 years, selling it to a Rochester family rather than placing it on the open market; and the Chafoulias family donating the ball as an inspiration for the patients and staff of Mayo Clinic.



Tags: ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, History, Lou Gehrig

It has only week since we learned about my husband has ALS. I have reading as much on it as I can. So very confused. He is a very strong will person, works to hard, a good man with a heart full of love. Loves his family we have 2 kids,10 grandkids and 2 great grand son. Been married 44 years. If any one he any words to help me understand this, I would be very thankful.


My mother passed away when she was 57. That was 1994. Her battle with ALS lasted only two years. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to you and your husband. Feel free to write me. Hugs to you both.


My father-in-law diagnosed a few months ago. Likely it was acquired while he was in the Navy (Vietnam era). Dad always was the physically strong one in the family –and extremely talented in work skills, construction, plumbing, casino maintenance director, online college student at 70, etc.
He now can hardly move from the couch, with breathing mask on, and he has lost more than 50 pounds in a very short time.
I pray that God's timeline for dad is changed to health (the doctors do not have much optimism about his condition).
I have been trying to find studies in their Fresno, Calif. area, so far nothing.
Any help would be greatly appreciated. I know nothing is over until God says so –
your prayers would be appreciated (if you are a believer, just tell Jesus, John needs him).
Dad is very loved. Thanks,
Daleandrosej at


Thank you for writing. Unfortunately, we cannot diagnose conditions, provide second opinions or make specific treatment recommendations through this website. If you would like to seek help from Mayo Clinic, please call one of our appointment offices (Arizona: 480-301-1735 Florida: 904-953-0853 Minnesota: 507-284-2511) or visit

You might also consider looking into our Mayo Clinic Connect website (, where you can communicate with others who may have had similar experiences. You can also read Mayo Clinic expert blogs and take part in educational events.

Please sign in or register to post a reply.
Contact Us · Privacy Policy